DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of And the Band Played On, An Early Frost, In the Gloaming, The Age of AIDS, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, The Witnesses, Wild Reeds, We Are Dad, All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise 


Title: And the Band Played On

Release Date:  1993

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 155 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  not available but suggest PG-13

Distributor and Production Company: HBO films

Director; Writer:  based on the book And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts, published by St. Martin’s Press (1987)


Cast:  Matthew Moldine

Technical:  TV film

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site: AIDS, public health, discrimination

Review:  "His brain was so loaded it almost exploded." I used to love that little jingle of a nursery song.

            Of course. gay journalist Randy Shilts turned this phrase into something very sinister as he gives a detailed, almost week by week account of the AIDS epidemic from its imperceptible beginnings around the time of America's Bicentennial in July, 1976, during the “Tall Ships” festival which I attended then.. Perhaps his greatest concept was the "before and after," the precise moment, different for every individual person, when one realizes that the whole concept of freedom and liberation that one has almost come to take for granted, is suddenly gone.

            This movie maintains that sinister mood, with its scenes of men in bunny suits probing equatorial Africa, to the scenes in hospitals, and the graveyards. Matthew Moldine comes across as a charismatic Don Francis, a voice looking for truth in a world of self-denial - both the gay community, and the politicians had their own motives for denial.

            Indeed, if the gay community had not gotten a grip on itself, it might not be around as we know it today.

            The movie was screened in a few theaters, and I think it would have been more effective in a theatrical release than just cable TV.  Previews were shown widely in theaters.

An Early Frost (1985, NBC, dir. John Erman, wr. Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, 100 min) was an early look of the fall of a young man, Michael Pierson (Aidan Quinn) to AIDS. A successful lawyer and part of mainstream culture, he must deal with the attitudes and misplaced sympathies of loved ones, including parents played by Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara.  This was broadcast on NBC and was a landmark in its time.  The film’s title is, unfortunately, a perfect metaphor.

In the Gloaming (1997, HBO, dir. Christopher Reeve) was a similar landmark cable film about a decade later. A young man Danny (Robert Sean Leonard) returns home to his mother as he dies of AIDS. This was the first film directed by Christopher Reeve after his horseback fall that left him a quadriplegic, and a leader of a major cause for victims of spinal cord injuries.

The Age of AIDS (2006, PBS/Fronline, prod. Renata Simone, dir. Greg Barker, 240 min) was first presented May 30, 31 2006. This documentary provides a complete history of the epidemic, factual and with little sensation. But by the time it was recognized around 1981, millions were already infected. Indeed, there were subtle warning signs at least as far back as 1978. Many scientists, physicians and officials (Anthony Fauci, Paul Volderbring, James Curran (whom I met in 1982), Paul Brandt, Willy Rosenblatt) are interviewed. The controversial Robert Gallo at NIH, a major retrovirus researcher, is shown. It is interesting to review all the mental paradigms of ethical thought that one could rehearse then, such as the speculations about casual contagion (now very relevant to the fears of bird flu, which is a completely different kind of virus).  At one point, Ronald Reagan refused to reassure the public that HIV could not be spread by casual contact, because of a legal opinion written by now Supreme Court Justice John G. Roberts. The science of the virus itself is well presented, including its relation to a previously discovered leukemia virus HTLV-1. The way the epidemic came from simiams (probably chimpanzees, who were often hunted—there is one particularly graphic image of a chimp cadaver) in the 1930s is explained.  The moral debate in Congress, driven by Jesse Helms, who wanted male homosexual sex to stop, is laid out.

The outbreak within the western world in the male gay community occurred because of historical demographics: recent liberation, multiple sexual partners within certain large urban concentrations, and, particularly, unprotected anal intercourse, a practice that is unusually efficient in transmitting certain bloodborn viruses. In Africa it would be a largely heterosexual disease because of recent urbanization, other sexually transmitted diseases facilitating vaginal transmission, and poverty. The closing of the baths is covered as Dr. Silverman from the San Francisco Health Department announces that these businesses did not facilitate gay liberation, just disease and death. A few graphic pictures of early AIDS victims, covered with Kaposi’s sarcoma blotches, are shown.

The second part of the film focuses on the development of effective drugs (the “triple cocktail” including the protease inhibitors) which so greatly prolonged the lives and improved the practical health of many victims in the U.S. (This is a far cry from a decade earlier when I, as a sometimes volunteer in Dallas, would see friends come back from hospital stays, their forearms shaved for multiple iv lines.) The gay press talks a lot about the “protease paunch”, an observation that seems exaggerated in practice.) But in the US the drugs cost about $16000 a year, sometimes covered by insurance (itself a political issue, although AIDS itself has become much more manageable in cost in employer sponsored health care than had once been expected). The triple cocktail (developed by David Ho) does not eliminate the virus completely; it keeps the virus practically undetectable, but the virus will return quickly when it is stopped. Over time, patients may develop resistance to drugs even within a cocktail, although hopefully the effectiveness of the “combination chemotherapy” is long term.  Cleve Jones, one of the disease’s most famous long-term survivors (from Shilts’s book), appears a lot and helps keep the film moving. Drug companies had to be jawboned to reduce prices for third world countries. Much of the second half talks a lot about the epidemic in South Africa. Bill Clinton often appears, and there is a pass mention of his faultily executed attempt to lift the ban on open gays in the military.

China began to take on AIDS more seriously after its lessons with the SARS outbreak in 2003. The Gates Foundation was presented in conjunction with India. There was some presentation of the “moral controversy” over recommending condoms, including female condoms. 

There could have been more discussion of the technical and biochemical barriers to vaccine development, which are quite complicated. I almost volunteered for an unsuccessful GP160 vaccine trial in 1989 at NIH. The lessons could be important for responding quickly to other infectious diseases, even avian influenza (bird flu). The reasons why we fear bird flu could mutate into ready contagion and HIV could not would bear a thoughtful presentation.


Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989, New Yorker / HBO, dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 78 min), by interviewing a number of AIDS victims and their friends or families, recreates the development of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, with many of the major newspaper stories and clumsy government announcements, so detailed in the Shilts book and film above. In this film, the reference point, however, is the AIDS Quilt that was assembled and exhibited around the country for several years from the late 1980s into the 1990s. I recall the layings on the Mall in Washington every October for those years. I visited it from work nearby on Vermont Ave. in 1989, and in 1992 I volunteered as an evening "guard", walking around with a walkie-talkie (days before cell phones). People would put together quilting bees. In the film, several harrowing stories appear, such as Vito, who was first given a negative diagnosis for Kaposi's sarcoma but called back and told the lab had switched the slides. Another victim is Dr. Tom Waddell.

One of the stories concerned a Naval officer, whose lover died of AIDS. The officer himself eventually retired quietly, but was never discharged because of the ban.

The Witnesses ("Les Temoins", 2007, Strand / SBS / France 2 C, dir. Andre Techine, 112 min, R) is an ambitious and very professionally made film, full 2.35 to 1 with plenty of on location French scenery, about who three "friends" deal with the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. It is 1984, and a lad from north Africa Manu (Johan Linereau) befriends an older physician Andrien (Michel Blanc) and an Algerian-born police officer Mehdi (Sami Bouajila). Both men "fall" for Manu and become mild rivals; the police officer comes to terms with his own homosexuality after rescuing Manu from a drowning accident. Suddenly, Kaposi's Sarcoma lesions are starting cover Manu's smooth body. Gradually, the other characters (including women in both older men's lives) deal with the mystery of AIDS. The film doesn't cover the studies at the Pasteur Institute, which made headlines in 1986 (especially in Charles Ortleb 's "The New York Native").  Adrien takes care of Manu as he declines into multiple opportunistic infections, and tests Mehdi, who remains negative.  All the characters become "witnesses" to the changing of history because of the epidemic. Mehdi is at odds with himself, raiding gay backrooms as a policeman. Manu's passing is commemorated, and Adrien will find new love with an international young man Steve (Lorenzo Balducci), and it is Adrien who claims to know love from within the soul.

Wild Reeds ("Les roseaux sauvages", 1994, Strand / Fox Lorber, dir. Andre Techine) is a well-known French coming of age gay film. As in "Witnesses" Techine lets the politics of Muslim Algeria play in the background, as if even then he understood that Muslim immigration would become controversial in Europe. This is 1962 (shortly after the incidents of "The Battle of Algiers") and set in a boarding school in southern France. Francoise (Gael Morel) is seduced by bisexual Serge (Stephane Rideau), where as Henri (Frederic Gorny) falls in love with an enemy Communist, Maite (Eloide Bouchez). Techine loves to mix up political themes and movements, with heterosexual and homosexuals characters, and just let the chips fall where they may.  There is a memorable scene where Francoise looks at himself in the mirror and says "I am a faggot." I remember a soliloquy in the common shower (alone, I thought) in the dorm at William and Mary in 1961 when I bragged to myself, "I am a homosexual on the loose." I thought of myself then as a "Wild Reed."

We Are Dad (2005, Indie-Film, dir. Michel Horvat, 68 min). Steven and Roger Croteau, a gay male couple for eighteen years, looking ordinary, raise many foster children with HIV, but cannot adopt children because Florida law prohibits adoption by homosexuals. They passed the background check to become foster parents, and found a paradox: they made a "dumping group" for black kids with HIV, but state law, based on the "birthright" of a child to a mother and father, would not let them adopt. Even conservative politicians call what the two men do "commendable" but won't give in on that biological mother and daddy thing. One kid converted back to sero-negative and was taken away. Eventually the couple moved to Oregon and had to fight to keep the kids' health insurance. The film certainly makes the point about the shortage of heterosexual adoptive parents. The state of Florida keeps trying to find adoptive homes for special needs children, and indeed the point is made that if 1% if Evangelical families would take one in, the gay couple wouldn't be needed. Florida is trying to take one boy away (NY Times story by Dana Canedy here.).  A Hispanic man (White looking) says he is insulted by the fact that gays have the same claims of hardship and discrimination as other "legitimate" minorities.  Rosie O'Donnell 's  cruise for gay families is shown at the end. They are taunted by "Baptists" from the Bahamas. 

This film (from a political point of view) bridges AIDS and gay families as normally separate issues since a gay male couple is taking care of foster children who got AIDS probably from their mothers at childbirth, who themselves were probably infected by needles or heterosexual contact.

All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise (2006, HBO, dir. Shari Cookson, 91 min) documents Rosie O'Donnell's cruise for gay families (mentioned in "We Are Dad" above), sailing from New York City on the "Norwegian Dawn". The TV film opens with a rendition of the 1979 song "We Are Family." A number of the gay families are presented, such as a male couple from New Jersey who (while not married legally) adopted a boy as a couple (possible in New Jersey) and then the female siblings (from foster care), to have four kids.  Another male couple used surrogate parenting and is not sure which man is the real biological "daddy".

There is a lot of entertainment on the closed ship, such as a troupe performing "All That Jazz" (became a movie in 1979).  There is an Internet cafe. There are many stand-up routines on the cruise about parenting, including a point where Rosie says that bathrooms should say "women and children."  Toward the end the cruise faces angry demonstrations from a minority of radical religious conservatives in Nassau. One of the protestors holds a curious poster that reads something like "Their only God is handsome men." Other protestors claim that gays are the only deviants trying to legitimatize their "immoral behavior." The kids of the gay parents are forced to see this and become desensitized to it. Toward the end there are testimonials of more gay parents, including one by the teenage daughter of two lesbians, one of whom is illegal and who reports of constant vandalism on their property. Some of the kids ask if it is legal for their parents to get married "yet". They understand more than we give them credit for, of what other kids "have" that they don't have. A minister of Metropolitan Community Church Worldwide performs a wedding at the end.


Related reviews:  Conduct Unbecoming (book)   Angels in America (cable series based on play)

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